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College Football Preview: SEC - Can Florida repeat?
Sportsbook) - What does
the SEC have to do for an encore? The league
won 39 of 49 non-conference games in 2006,
winning 61% of those vs. the other five BCS
leagues. Florida led the way by disposing
Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS Championship
The SEC had six teams in the final AP Top 25,
including two (Florida #1 and LSU #3) in the
top three. In addition, nine of the 12 clubs
went bowling, with six coming out on the winning
side both SU and ATS.
Do the Gators have what it takes to reach the
title game once again? At first glance, the answer
is a resounding no. The defense lost nine starters
and quarterback Chris Leak is no longer under
center. Ohio State had a similar scenario coming
into last season, as only two defensive starters
remained, but the Buckeyes did bring back a veteran
QB in Troy Smith. The odds of Tim Tebow winning
the Heisman are 12-1, but they should be at least
Time now to take a closer look at the SEC with
odds to win the BCS Championship:
LSU (8-1) - After
winning 11 games each of the last two seasons,
the Tigers are primed for a run at the "Big Game" with
14 returning starters, including eight on defense.
Strengths - The LSU defense began last year
with only one returning starter on the line and
just 13 career starts for its three top linebackers.
This season, six members of the front seven are
back along with 45 career starts from the LBs,
so look for LSU to be even better defensively
in '07. Both starting corners also return, which
will keep the Tigers in contention for the top
defensive team in the country. Matt Flynn takes
over at QB for JaMarcus Russell, and despite
starting just one game in three seasons with
the Tigers it was a big one as Flynn led them
to a 40-3 rout of Miami-Florida in the 2005 Peach
Bowl. The Hurricanes had lost only two games
that year by a combined seven points.
Weaknesses - Unfortunately, the senior QB will
not have Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis to throw
to, as both wideouts are off to the NFL. Still,
the cupboard is far from bare, with Early Doucet
and a host of youngsters filling out the position.
One also must wonder how easily the transition
will take place from Russell to Flynn, even though
the latter posted a 9-2 TD-INT ratio the last
two years. Both safeties have to be replaced,
including No. 6 overall draft pick LaRon Landry.
Bottom Line - If the Tigers can get past Virginia
Tech, they have a tremendous shot at an undefeated
season. Florida, Auburn and Arkansas all come
to Baton Rouge. On the other hand, only one SEC
team has gone 8-0 in conference play over the
last eight years (Auburn in 2004), so the odds
are against it. Look for an 11-1 campaign, 7-1
in league play. LSU is 9-2-1 as a road favorite
the last four years.
AUBURN (100-1) - It's hard to say a team
disappoints when it finishes 11-2, but that's
exactly what happened to the Tigers, who had
the schedule to make a run at an undefeated season.
Unfortunately, the talent did not match.
Strengths - Auburn began last season with just
two career starts from three- fourths of its
defensive line and the unit struggled, allowing
138 ypg with a 4.1 ypc average in conference
play. In addition, top LB recruit Tray Blackmon
was suspended for the first six games. Look for
immense improvement as the line brings back 39
career starts this season, with Blackmon set
to become the Tigers' top defender. The secondary,
which ranked 14th in the country allowing 168
passing yards per game, will be even more productive
with a better front seven in front of them. Quarterback
Brandon Cox underachieved last season while playing
hurt, and like the rest of the team, is due for
an improved campaign.
Weaknesses - The offensive line was abused all
season long, allowing 35 sacks, including 25
in SEC play. Four starters from that sorry unit
depart, leaving a gaping hole in the offense,
one that ranked 10th in the SEC in total yards
averaging just 283 per game. Can the Tigers improve
on that mark with both their leading rusher (Kenny
Irons) and receiver (Courtney Taylor) off to
Bottom Line - Auburn's recent history suggests
tremendous success when the Tigers are slated
for a middle-of-the-pack finish. They will win
10 regular season games for a second consecutive
year with both losses coming inside the conference.
Auburn has the look of a team that will cover
most of its games the second half of the season.
ALABAMA (100-1) - Can Nick Saban resurrect
the Alabama program in his first year at Tuscaloosa?
He did take a 3-8 LSU Tigers club and molded
them into a 7-4 team in his initial season, so
the answer is yes.
Strengths - The defense returns the same 86
career starts that it had last year, but look
for Saban and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele
to shape it into a top-10 defense. Former Texas
quarterback Major Applewhite takes over as offensive
coordinator after a fantastic job with Rice last
year. The Crimson Tide will have its finest offensive
output since the 1999 club averaged 29 ppg. Nine
starters return, and redshirt freshman RB Terry
Grant will could come close to breaking Shaun
Alexander's team rushing record before his collegiate
career is through.
Weaknesses - The Tide averaged only 17 ppg in
its eight league games. Only Vanderbilt, Mississippi
State and Ole Miss garnered less. The defense
did just one better, finishing eighth in SEC
play and beating out the aforementioned threesome
along with Kentucky.
Bottom Line - Alabama was 6-6 in '04 and improved
to 10-2 the following season. Last year, the
Tide finished 6-7, but once again, will turn
it around and go 9-3, 6-2 in the SEC. Circle
November 3 on your calendar when LSU comes to
Tuscaloosa, and just as Steve Spurrier defeated
Florida, in his first year at South Carolina,
Saban will get the best of the Tigers. Alabama
is 2-10 as a home favorite the past two seasons,
but that record won't hold in '07.
ARKANSAS (60-1) - After getting obliterated
by USC the first week of the season, Arkansas
rallied to win 10 straight games, but couldn't
defeat the big boys (LSU, Florida and Wisconsin)
down the stretch.
Strengths - Heisman Trophy favorite Darren McFadden
leads the deepest backfield in college football,
as the duo of McFadden and Felix Jones combined
for 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns last season.
If fullback Peyton Hills can stay healthy, it
will add another dimension to the passing game,
which was pathetic when he was on the sidelines.
The secondary has been on fire since the midpoint
of the '05 campaign, forcing opposing QBs to
throw more incomplete passes than completions.
Weaknesses - Injuries have killed this team,
as defensive tackle Marcus Harrison tore his
ACL in the spring and WR Marcus Monk ripped up
his knee in August. Monk, the Hogs' only experienced
pass-catcher, could miss the first month of the
season. It will be interesting to see how McFadden
and company do with a revamped O-line that lost
three veteran starters. Not to mention what it
will do to quarterback Casey Dick not having
LT Tony Ugoh there to protect him.
Bottom Line - The Razorbacks have more questions
than answers as the season gets underway, and
I would not be surprised to see them open the
year with a 1-2 record. Expect no more than seven
wins, three in the SEC. They are one team to
wager against early and often.
OLE MISS (100-1 - Field) - The Rebels have
won only 11 of 34 games since Eli Manning left
Oxford. If the Rebels are ever going to make
some noise, this is the year to do it with 15
Strengths - The offensive line is the most underrated
unit in the entire country. Left tackle Michael
Oher will be a first-round draft choice and guard
John Jerry could follow suit in three years.
Look for RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis to gain 1,000
yards for the second straight season. The defense,
which improved as the season progressed, allowed
an average of 19 ppg in regulation play vs. LSU,
Georgia, Alabama and Auburn, and the Rebels lost
all four by a combined 17 points.
Weaknesses - Unfortunately, the top three tacklers
all depart including LB Patrick Willis, but with
improved recruiting, there is sufficient talent
ready to emerge. Ole Miss has picked off just
nine passes the last 23 games and the defensive
backfield is in a state of flux with a host of
newcomers vying for starting jobs.
Bottom Line - The schedule maker-was not too
kind to the Rebels, as they draw Florida, Georgia
and Vanderbilt from the East. Otherwise they
might have finished with their highest win total
since 2003. Another four-win season is in the
cards with just one SEC victory over Miss State
mixed in. Arkansas, Alabama and LSU all come
to Oxford, which is good news for those who wager
on home underdogs, as Ole Miss is 9-3 this decade
when getting points at home.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (100-1 - Field) - The Bulldogs
have not had a winning season in seven years.
Make it eight after this season.
Strengths - Anthony Dixon could get the entire
city of Starkville to forget about Jerious Norwood.
The sophomore running back gained over 300 yards
in his final three starts, and hit paydirt nine
times in only five starts. He'll be running behind
an experienced O-line that brings back five players
who started at least five games last season.
Weaknesses - The offense will go only as far
as Dixon can take it, especially with Michael
Hennig as the starting quarterback. In his two
seasons as a Bulldog, Hennig has thrown 14 interceptions
to just nine touchdowns and his completion percentage
is a putrid 44%. The defense, which finished
dead last in conference play last year allowing
28 ppg, returns only five starters.
Bottom Line - Miss State has not won more than
three games in a season since 2000, and the Bulldogs
will fail to reach four once again. Look for
another 3-9 campaign, with all three victories
coming in non-conference play. They are a wretched
6-15 as home underdogs since '02.
SOUTH CAROLINA (75-1) - All six clubs in
this division have tremendous offenses, but only
one team will be dominant on the defensive side
of the ball, and that's South Carolina.
Strengths - The Gamecocks,
Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers bring back
a total of 20 returning defensive starters
and South Carolina brings back half of that
total. Last year the "D" returned
55 starts and the unit finished 29th in the country,
allowing 18.7 ppg. This year, the defense brings
back 144 career starts, so look for SC to have
its best numbers since 2000 when the "D" gave
up 15 ppg. The offense has a few holes, which
will be detailed in the next paragraph, but there
is plenty of talent on hand, especially at the
Weaknesses - The O-line lost three starters
last year and the unit allowed 15 sacks the first
five games. The unit did improve as the year
went on, limiting the number to an average of
one per game the rest of the way. Three starters
depart once again, and Steve Spurrier has not
been happy with his new-look offensive line.
Bottom Line - The Gamecocks lost to Florida,
Tennessee and Auburn by a combined 15 points
even though they outgained all three of them.
This season South Carolina will win the close
contests, and their defense will carry them to
a nine-win season, 5-3 in the SEC, including
wins over the Gators and the Vols. They might
not cover many games early on, but ride them
hard after September.
TENNESSEE (45-1) - The Volunteers have averaged
8.5 wins a season over the last four years and
that's exactly where they are spotted in the
over/under wager for total wins this year.
Strengths - Erik Ainge flourished under the
direction of offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe,
completing 67% of his tosses for a shade under
3,000 yards. The run defense was pitiful last
year, as the Vols finished next- to-last in league
play allowing 151 yards per game and 4.2 yards
per carry. The reason? Only one returning starter
in the front seven and Justin Harrell's season
ended after the third game. Look for Tennessee
to improve dramatically in this area.
Weaknesses - The offensive line failed to adequately
protect Ainge late in the season, giving up 13
sacks the final five games, and the Volunteers
won just two of them. The new unit hasn't performed
much better, allowing 32 sacks in the last four
scrimmages - the final two in the spring and
the first two in the fall. Also, can the Vols'
passing attack flourish after losing the talents
of Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith?
Bottom Line - With an improved defense that
includes highly-touted freshman cornerback Eric
Berry, Tennessee will contend for the divisional
crown despite its offensive problems. Look for
an 8-4 campaign and a 5-3 SEC record. However,
don't bet the house when the Vols are a home
favorite. They have covered just 10 of their
last 36 games when giving points at Neyland Stadium.
FLORIDA (8-1) The Gators will not repeat.
Anyone who wants to bet them at 8-1, please forward
Strengths - Florida has recruited well under
Urban Meyer, so the Gators will not free fall
into oblivion. Many offensive threats return
in Andre Caldwell, Percy Harvin, Kestahn Moore
and Cornelius Ingram. But more importantly, the
offensive line brings back four starters.
Weaknesses - It's hard to call the quarterback
position a weakness, but Tim Tebow ran the ball
almost three times more than he threw in his
initial campaign. He still has to prove he can
pass as well as run. The defense, which must
start anew with nine new starters, loses 19 of
21 interceptions, and only six upperclassmen
reside in the entire two-deep roster. In fact,
the Gators have one of the lowest percentages
of senior and junior starters in the country.
Bottom Line - Despite winning the whole enchilada,
Florida did not dominate the season the way a
national champion should. The offense averaged
just 22 ppg in conference play, and the squad
covered just one of its eight regular season
league games. Eight wins, five in the SEC, will
be all this team gets. The Gators are an incredible
0-7 under Meyer as an away favorite.
GEORGIA (35-1) - Despite losing to both Vanderbilt
and Kentucky for the first time in the same season
since 1973, the Bulldogs rebounded with three
straight victories to end the season 9-4.
Strengths - Matthew Stafford can't play any
worse than his freshman season, throwing 13 interceptions
to just seven touchdowns. On the flip side, he
did win six of his eight starts. Georgia always
has a solid running game, and both starters from
the previous two years return.
Weaknesses - This will be the year the 'Dawgs
defense allows more than 20 ppg. It hasn't happened
since 1999. Seven of the top nine tacklers have
moved on, and the unit returns only three starters,
the least amount in over a decade. Only four
players on the entire defensive roster have started
at least six college games. Georgia is one of
those clubs that reloads rather than rebuilds,
but to perform in the SEC with such an inexperienced
defense is really asking a lot. The offensive
line is also in a rebuilding mode with just 25
career starts. In addition, offensive coordinator
Neil Calloway left to become the head coach at
Bottom Line - Georgia will finish .500 in league
play and win eight games overall for the second
straight season, but like last year, will not
look pretty in doing so. The Bulldogs are 11-6
as a road favorite the last five years.
VANDERBILT (100-1 - Field) - The post-Jay
Cutler era started slowly with three straight
defeats, but the Commodores won four of their
last nine games.
Strengths - That four-win season under new quarterback
Chris Nickson was just one victory less than
the five Vandy won in Cutler's senior campaign.
In addition, Nickson's 24 rushing and passing
TDs were two more than Cutler totaled in 2005.
Suffice to say, Vandy is in good hands as the
junior QB will only get better, especially with
Earl Bennett (82 catches) to throw to. All five
starting linemen return and both starting tailbacks
(Cassen Jackson- Garrison and Jeff Jennings)
are 100% healthy at the same juncture for the
first time in their Vandy careers. The defense,
which had its finest season since 1999, will
be even stronger with the return of seven of
its top eight tacklers.
Weaknesses - Last year's inexperienced secondary
allowed opposing SEC QBs to complete a league-high
65% of their passes. On the bright side, three
of the four members of the secondary now have
a year under their belts. Offensive turnovers
must be cut down, as 21 TOs in eight conference
games halted many scoring drives.
Bottom Line - The Commodores will finish above
.500 for the first time in 25 years with seven
victories, three coming in the SEC. They are
an amazing 11-2 as an away underdog the last
KENTUCKY (100-1 - Field) - Kentucky improved
its record by five games twice in the last five
years. However, the last time the Wildcats turned
their fortunes around, they went from 7-5 to
4-8 the following season.
Strengths - If football was just about the skill
positions, Kentucky would finish first in the
East. Andre Woodson is the leading returning
QB in the conference, and Keenan Burton returns
as the leading receiver in terms of touchdowns.
Running back Rafael Little, who was first team
All-SEC two years back, gained 673 yards last
season, but did so in only seven starts. Taking
care of the football is always important and
the 'Cats turned the ball over just nine times
in eight league games. They were also tops in
the conference in forcing 20 turnovers.
Weaknesses - It's obvious - the defense. Kentucky
finished dead last in league play against the
run (169 ypg, as well as 4.9 ypc) and vs. the
pass (280 ypg). In fact, despite their offensive
prowess, the Wildcats were outgained in 10 of
their 12 FBS games last season. It will be interesting
to see if the skilled offensive players can match
last season's totals with a depleted offensive
line. In '06, the O-line had 90 career starts,
but the unit brings back just 30 for '07.
Bottom Line - Too many things went right for
this team to be able to post another eight-win
season. Expect a .500 campaign with a 3-5 conference
record. The 'Cats are a great team to wager against
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